Women in the legal profession have long since broken through the gender glass ceiling.
Most of the highest positions in the administration of justice were held by women officials, including Secretary of Justice, Chief Justice, DPP, Chief State Solicitor and Attorney General.
In 2014, Ireland became the first country in the world where women made up the majority of lawyers in the Bar Association.
It is indicative of the great strides that have been made in the 99 years since Ireland’s first female lawyer, Mary Dorothea Heron, entered a male-dominated profession.
But all of that doesn’t mean it’s been a trouble-free zone for the women who chose to pursue a career in law.
Just over 18 months ago, Longford-based lawyers Fiona Baxter and Breege Mimnagh founded the country’s first almost all-female law firm specializing in criminal defense.
Baxter Mimnagh Solicitors, which also specializes in medical negligence cases, has already doubled since it opened in October 2020.
The firm has nine employees – four attorneys-at-law, three attorneys-at-law and an accountant, all of whom are women. The ninth associate is the only male paralegal.
“I suppose it’s unusual, especially in a provincial town, for women lawyers to specialize in criminal defense because, by its very nature, the work can be quite challenging,” says Ms Mimnagh, who became one of the first women lawyers in the country to specialize in criminal defense when she moved Qualified for the first time in 1984.
“Our job is to represent the customer on a human level by listening and showing empathy. I’ve always prided myself on representing the underdog.
“As a mother with a family, you see the two sides of the case. Your personal experience colors everything you do and the feminine touch brings that extra level of empathy.
“Our guiding principle is that there is the rule of law and the right of humanity, and sometimes they diverge and we strive to bring them closer together – that’s called justice.”
But criminal defense work is the most challenging aspect of the legal profession, especially for female practitioners.
Representing predominantly male clients accused of the most serious crimes such as murder, rape, child abuse, aggravated assault, drug trafficking and domestic violence is not for the faint of heart.
Many defendants in criminal cases have mental health and substance abuse problems that can make them volatile and prone to violent outbursts.
Others tend to physically threaten women, even those who defend them.
On the day of Irish Independent Conducting this interview, Gardaí launched an investigation after Ms Mimnagh received serious threats from a former client with a history of misogynistic violence. He had left several voice messages on her phone threatening to cause serious harm to her and her family. Gardaí took the threats seriously and the investigation is ongoing.
How do you deal with that? “It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it’s worrying and you have to act and nip it in the bud, but I’m not overly concerned,” says Ms Mimnagh with a shrug.
“In defense work you regularly deal with people who have mental health issues and sometimes they just want to lash out and the easiest target is the defender.”
Ms Mimnagh and Ms Baxter bonded two years ago when they decided to partner.
The former, who has five adult children, had already established a successful practice in the city and was looking for a suitable business partner.
Ms. Baxter, who has earned a reputation as an outstanding defense attorney since her first qualification in 2010, is the managing partner of the new firm. The two became friends while working in the district courts in the Midlands.
“It’s really no coincidence that we’re an almost exclusively female practice: we all work better together, which is in the best interests of clients,” says Ms Mimnagh.
The two share a common approach to dealing with clients, especially distressed or aggressive ones. It’s about calming the situation.
“We are aware that many of our clients come to us at a very difficult time in their lives and almost always in a crisis situation,” says Ms. Baxter. “Some of them are misogynistic and can be aggressive, which you have to control from the start.
“Early on in my career, when I first met Breege working in the same courts, she taught me that the most effective approach to dealing with an agitated and pushy male client is to use female logic to understand the setting to suppress location.
“You lay the ground rules and first make it clear that you will not tolerate this attitude and that you are there to defend them and help them through this crisis.
“We show empathy and listen to them, then patiently explain the process they are entering and lay out their options for the future.
“They review every aspect of the state’s case to ensure its rights have not been violated.
“It is very important that the customer sees that he can trust you and has confidence in your abilities.”
Only twice in her career, says Ms Baxter, has she had to “grit her teeth” when clients faced with overwhelming evidence against her refused to take advice.
“It is not our job to pass judgement, it is to listen, take instructions and then advise the client on their options and allow them to consider those options and then present the best possible case on their behalf .
“But there is one sacrosanct rule all lawyers must abide by – if a client admits they are guilty of a crime and then chooses to plead not guilty, we walk away. We are committed to the court.”
Domestic violence is an area in which women are particularly interested, but lawyers have concerns based on their collective experience that could be described as controversial.
They believe a “small cohort” of women are abusing home bans and security orders, which they describe as “a blunt instrument.”
“Since the pandemic in particular, there has been a noticeable increase in domestic violence cases in the country and there is a clear need for lockdown and protection and safety orders, which we are dealing with from both sides – victim and accused,” says Ms Mimnagh . “But she [orders] must be treated with respect by both the person receiving the order and the person who is the subject of the order.
“Sometimes, in a minority of cases, we see a woman using the order she has to control the partner and the breakdown of a relationship. Some people abuse these commands just to get their partner out of the house.
“If the orders are not respected and treated responsibly by the person who has the order, the system becomes ineffective and unfair.
“Careless complaints can result in a defendant being denied access to employment – particularly where Garda screening is required.”
She also points out that while women are the victims in the “vast majority” of domestic violence cases, there is also a “significant cohort of men” who are abused by their partners in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
“There’s coercive control and abuse for both sexes, which is sometimes forgotten,” she adds.
They argue that current laws and policies deprive Gardaí of discretion when dealing with allegations of domestic violence.
Ms Baxter says: “As the system currently stands, regardless of the particular circumstances, the Gardai must arrest and detain that person when an order is issued and the Gardaí are called.
“I know of a case where a man was in a relationship with a woman for about four months when they both realized it wasn’t working and decided to go their separate ways.
“The woman was given a security order that allowed her to continue living in the same house as long as the partner didn’t frighten her. She called the Gardaí several times, and each time he had to be arrested and then brought to justice.
“Twice he was held overnight but the Gardaí, who could see what was going on, had no discretion in the matter. This man worked full time and this was his own home.
“The problem was that the woman had no home and probably out of desperation decided to abuse the procedure to get him out of his house.
“My concern is that when you have a small minority of people willing to abuse the system, the real victims fall away.
“The judges and gardaí see that but can’t do anything, even if it’s a minor dispute.”
Ms Mimnagh cites another case where a man was so frustrated in a family law case at not being heard that he offered the judge €100 “just so he could have five uninterrupted minutes” to explain his case.
“He felt he didn’t have enough time to be heard. He had not seen his children for several months.
“Dealing with family law is definitely the most challenging task from a legal representative’s point of view and also from a human point of view when you see how much pain and pain is borne by all sides.”
They also point to the lack of mental health services for people who commit crime as a result of alcohol or drug addiction or mental health problems that many have had since childhood.
Ms Baxter says: “There has always been trouble in this area but the situation has become much more serious since lockdown and there is a big increase in reports of domestic violence resulting from drug and alcohol abuse.
“We have clients who are desperate for help with their addiction issues that have gotten them in trouble with the law. There are practically no services that help these people.”
https://www.independent.ie/news/women-have-broken-the-glass-ceiling-in-law-but-often-face-threats-in-their-work-41616068.html Women have broken the glass ceiling in the law but are often threatened in their work